21st Century Gonzo

"Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city."

– Richard Rodriguez, "The Twilight of the American Newspaper," Harper's (Nov. '09)


Two pieces of human knowledge are responsible for my return to the blogosphere: the above Harper's essay, "The Twilight of the American Newspaper" by Richard Rodriguez, and the November 3rd Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, "Good Riddance To Mainstream Media?", which was rebroadcast yesterday while I paddled my car through the dirty, snowy streets of Providence.

The former is a lengthy, eloquent diagnosis of the terminal illness afflicting the institution of the newspaper. As the quotation suggests, Rodriguez is concerned with the abstraction of American life from its sense of place, the character of its cities, of which a city's newspaper used to be the arbiter. He focuses on his own city of San Francisco, the "Gold Rush city," where the newspapers, like the city itself, have a beautifully sordid history. He recalls the golden age of the San Francisco Chronicle, during editor Scott Newhall's tenure from 1952-1971, when the personalities of the columnists imbued the city itself with its own personality, absorbed by its citizens over breakfast or jostling on the bus. Today, the Chronicle loses "a million dollars a day," bleeding out like all the other papers, and it is owned by the Hearst Corporation, formerly the publishers of the San Francisco Examiner, its arch rival, now a tabloid.

Rodriguez insists the death of the newspaper cannot be blamed simply on the information bloom of the Internet; he thinks it's due to a wide variety of factors, all stemming from our petro-technological retraction from public spaces into the cyborg tortoise-shells of our egos. In other words, we no longer want to be confined by our geographical location; we want to live now, instantly, anywhere on Earth, straight from the origin of whatever information we desire. Because of this consumer preference, a localized, truck-borne publication no longer makes economic sense.

The Intelligence Squared U.S. debate illuminates the old-vs-new media questions with a panel of well-spoken experts. They begin by arguing over business models, but eventually, the conversation shifts to one of authority, namely, who has more: corporate-backed newsrooms with all the necessary credentials, or decentralized, web-based operations not limited by geographic constraints? The New Media side felt that the demise of the Old is inevitable, and that the writing is on the wall. The Old Guard insisted that there is no either-or proposition; in order for the public to receive the best information possible, there has to be room for both the New and the Old. Ultimately, the "Good Riddance To Mainstream Media" motion failed. The Old Guard won the debate. Obviously, these questions are far from settled.

Personally, I can't see far and wide enough to know whether Rodriguez is correct about the American trend away from local identity. If that's really the trend, though, I reject it. I think it's foolish. As long as we are physical beings, and I presume that will be for a long time yet, our conditions will be defined by our physical and social surroundings; the place we live sets the tone and the rhythm of our lives, even if we spend a good chunk of our day reading about elsewhere. I believe that it is a natural, neurologically-supported tendency of human consciousness to form an identity based on wherever and whatever Home is.

At the same time, I think the Global Information Cloud is beautiful. I strongly encourage the ongoing international conversation of the Internet, and I want us all to participate. For now, I have decided yet again that the personal blog is an interesting node of information, so Everything is ablaze! has returned. However, I don't think it's worth reading unless it conveys a sense of WHO writes, WHERE he writes, and WHY.